BHA plan to limit trainers to four runners in top handicaps dismissed as ‘window dressing’

Horse Racing Ireland says it has ‘no plans’ to examine similar restrictions in this country

Radical proposals by Britain’s racing authorities that could limit trainers to just four runners in top cross-channel handicap races have been dismissed here as “window dressing”.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has confirmed it is seeking the views of stakeholders on a controversial rule change that could restrict trainers to a maximum of four runners in cross-channel handicaps at Class One or Two level.

It comes on the back of a wider debate about the increasing dominance of a small group of ‘super trainers’ in some top handicap prizes, including how Gordon Elliott saddled a record 14 runners in last month’s Troytown Chase at Navan.

However, it is the prospect of similar domination in next year’s Aintree Grand National that appears to particularly lie behind the BHA plan. Elliott saddled a record 11 runners in the sport’s most high-profile race in 2019. He had five runners this year, the same as his great rival, Willie Mullins.


In October, the BHA outlined a cut to 34 in the maximum number of runners allowed participate in the 2024 Aintree National as part of measures designed to improve safety in the race. The previous limit was 40.

Mullins also had five runners in the 2022 County Hurdle won by State Man at Cheltenham, while further evidence of how any restriction might impact came at last year’s festival when Elliott saddled seven in the Coral Cup.

A Racing Post report said no such limits are envisaged in weight for age races due to fears quality might be compromised. It also said no limit would be put on how many runners that owners could have. The winner Coko Beach was one of eight Troytown runners for Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud.

Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) quickly stated on Tuesday that it has “no plans” for any similar examination of handicaps here while the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association (IRTA) said that while any such move might be “well intentioned” it is unlikely to produce major transformational change to competition problems.

“There is a well-meaning aspect to this but it is not going to bring about the transformative change they might be hoping for. I think everybody wants these high-value handicaps to be ultra-competitive and potentially this could negatively impact on the competitive nature of these races,” the IRTA chief executive Ryan McElligott said.

McElligott, a long-time race planner for Gordon Elliott, added: “It strikes me a bit of window dressing, and I would question the amount of thought that has gone into it.

“In limiting trainers to a certain number of runners, I don’t think that is jump racing’s big problem. It’s a level of micro-management with macro implications because of the impact on owners.

“Obviously we’re talking about something that is being proposed in England, but I’m looking at certain handicaps that have been run in Ireland this year and without substantial support from certain yards, they would have been rather poorly subscribed. This wouldn’t address that.”

Any potential limit would also apply to the flat, with potential implications for leading handicap trainers such as David O’Meara. He had half a dozen runners in this year’s Golden Mile at Goodwood.

Elliott’s 11 Aintree National runners in 2019 surpassed the 10 saddled by his mentor, Martin Pipe, in 2001, and on Tuesday Elliott described the prospect of a limit in top handicaps as a “massive worry”. He also said it could be “lunacy” if the BHA opt to introduce such a step.

In other news, Elliott said he is leaning towards a tilt at the King George VI Chase on St Stephen’s Day with his top Cheltenham Gold Cup prospect Gerri Colombe.

Winner of Down Royal’s Grade One feature last month, Gerri Colombe also has Christmas option of Leopardstown’s Savills Chase. But ahead of a final decision next week, Elliott indicated the Kempton contest may cut up more.

The John McConnell-trained Mahler Mission, runner-up in Newbury’s Coral Gold Cup, is set to miss Christmas entirely and is likely to be pointed towards a tilt at the Aintree National in April.

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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column